Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jackson's identity crisis and Redfern Now

High school dress-ups can be nerve-racking occasions, a chance to expose more of you to your pimply peers that you might want to normally.

Thriller had been rocking the charts when, at Macquarie Fields High School (where I was a student briefly), I revealed my pop star crush. I wore a twist on the Billie Jean outfit; one white glove, a red jacket with a black belt strap across the chest and waist, a pair of shiny-fly glasses, white slacks and my mother's low-heeled leather loafers that promised to defy gravity on the dance floor (I could moonwalk and jump onto my toe tips). My hair was short, shiny and curly. My nose was itself.

Over the years I lost faith in my pop idol. He seemed to turn his back on his African heritage and squirrel into himself. There was less mojo. He became a cardboard cut-out, less authentic.

Now, thirty years on, I am reading with macabre curiosity new details of the life of the man-boy who lived so extravagantly, naively and with so much sadness. What chance could a manipulated child-star have of ever being creatively free?

The plastic surgery certainly suggested his self-loathing. But the nose thing. What was that really that about? “Big nose” was the label his brothers and notoriously brutish father called him. The label stuck, deep down in his psyche. His nose was so burdened by multiple surgery, that it disappeared and was replaced by a prosthetic.

He created history by “crossing over” and making it big as an African-American artist in the mainstream, and yet denied his fans the colour we saw in him from his boyhood days. He lost so much along the way, although not, author Randall Sullivan contemplates, his virginity. Such was his self loathing and quest for perfection , one speculates, that he
suffered a kind of sexual anorexia. Sullivan says he yearned to be 'presexual'. Real adult intimacy would be just too messy. He seemed caught between the culture that cultivated his talent and his constant need to be 'loved' by the mainstream, haunted by the criticisms of a scavenging family.

Segway with me to an underlying theme in the ABC TV's excellent series Redfern Now; a tension between the image we may have ourselves and the image others expect us to carry. That tension is often heavily felt by “ethnic” and Indigenous cultures in post colonial societies.

The program is set in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern - the first place to have urban Aboriginal community housing - a place known for its concentration of poverty and clashes with police (much of the old housing is being demolished as the suburb is gentrified with expensive higher density units).

The series is a real eye-opener for many Australians who aren't faced with the multiple stresses and issues that the characters do. It has a lot to say about the legacy of displacement, internalising negative messages and the psychology of oppression, the role of education and identity/belonging.

Take for example, the feisty Aboriginal elder, Coral (in episode two). She's involved in her community (volunteers at a soup kitchen), is something of a watchdog and is highly critical of what she sees.

She uses inflammatory language to describe Aboriginal youth in the neighbourhood - territorial and deeply suspicious of outsiders - as "oxygen thieves" and "numb nuts". She tells her visiting granddaughter that she must not get involved with black men (who she says find the idea of work "offensive", "once they take a shine to you, he's only after one thing... if you're lucky he'll p___-off, if you're unlucky he'll marry you"). Coral has internalised the language of the oppressor.

Coral's granddaughter, a university student, arrives in a taxi in Redfern and the cab driver quizzes her, "But you don't look Aboriginal" (Indigeneity is often contested by the dominate culture).

Jackson's final look, like a distorting mask, did not hide but rather exposed his pain. We forget that this King of Pop also belonged to a minority that desperately sought legitimacy.